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An exciting era as RAF Lakenheath prepares for the arrival of the F-35A Lightning

The F-35A Lightening II at RAF Lakenheath.
Byline: Sonya Duncan
Copyright: Archant 2017

The F-35A Lightening II at RAF Lakenheath. Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2017

ARCHANT EASTERN DAILY PRESS (01603) 772434

A new era is on the horizon for one of the region’s biggest military bases as it prepares itself for the arrival of the world’s most advanced fighter jet.

Representatives from RAF Lakenheath during a demolition ceremony at the base. The construction site will eventually be home to approximately 1,200 airmen and 54 F-35A Lightning II aircraft squadrons. Picture: US Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christopher SparksRepresentatives from RAF Lakenheath during a demolition ceremony at the base. The construction site will eventually be home to approximately 1,200 airmen and 54 F-35A Lightning II aircraft squadrons. Picture: US Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christopher Sparks

The first F-35A Lightning IIs will touch down at RAF Lakenheath in late 2021, in a programme which will see a total of 54 jets, around 1,200 airmen and women, and between 60 and 100 civilian personnel, arrive at the US Air Force base.

Currently contractors are identifying initial requirements for building sizes with a primary contractor planned to be on board by the summer.

The large-scale construction project – overseen by the Ministry of Defence and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation - will kick-off in early 2019.

Lt Col William Vause (right) F-35 program integration officer at RAF Lakenheath. Picture: Staff Sgt Stephanie LongoriaLt Col William Vause (right) F-35 program integration officer at RAF Lakenheath. Picture: Staff Sgt Stephanie Longoria

MORE - Demolition ceremony marks a new era for RAF Lakenheath as it prepares for arrival of F-35A fighter jet

An F-35 campus, built to minimise space and bring everything together in one place, will include a maintenance facility, two six-bay hangers, 42 parking spots for the planes, a flight simulator building with six simulators and a diner.

Col Evan Pettus, 48th Fighter Wing commander, swings a sledgehammer during a demolition ceremony at RAF Lakenheath. The ceremony marked the first physical step in developing the infrastructure needed for thethe airrival of the F-35A Lightning II squadrons. Picture: US Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christopher SparksCol Evan Pettus, 48th Fighter Wing commander, swings a sledgehammer during a demolition ceremony at RAF Lakenheath. The ceremony marked the first physical step in developing the infrastructure needed for thethe airrival of the F-35A Lightning II squadrons. Picture: US Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christopher Sparks

F-35 programme integration officer Lt Col William Vause has been working on the project since September 2015.

He said the base was “very fortunate” to welcome the jets, which will form the first two US F-35 fighter jet squadrons in Europe. They will become part of the 48th Fighter Wing.

“In the next four or five years you have 1,200 individuals coming in but think about that logistical piece that is going to come in just to support those facility constructions,” he said.

“Think about all the opportunities it is going to provide for the small sub-contractors with large contractors coming in a saying, ‘Hey I need this done’.

F-35A Lightning IIs from the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and F-15C Eagles from the 493rd Fighter Squadron, stand by to take-off for a training sortie at RAF Lakenheath. Picture: US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Emerson NuñezF-35A Lightning IIs from the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and F-15C Eagles from the 493rd Fighter Squadron, stand by to take-off for a training sortie at RAF Lakenheath. Picture: US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Emerson Nuñez

MORE - “Revolutionary” F-35A Lightning IIs on deployment at RAF Lakenheath to maximise training and strengthen US and UK alliance

An F-35A Lightning II from the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, lands at RAF Lakenheath on a training deployment. Picture: Master Sgt Eric BurksAn F-35A Lightning II from the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, lands at RAF Lakenheath on a training deployment. Picture: Master Sgt Eric Burks

“I think there is plenty of economic opportunity that is going to be here in the short term because of the F-35 and that development going in.”

An additional dormitory for 144 personnel and equipment stores will also be built.

The majority of the F-35 construction is scheduled to be completed by 2022/23.

The F-35s will fly alongside the F-15 Strike Eagle and F-15C Eagle of the 492nd and the 493rd Fighter Squadrons. The F-15C is set to leave the base in the future.

An F-35 Lightning II from the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, takes off from RAF Lakenheath. Picture: US Air Force/Senior Airman Malcolm MayfieldAn F-35 Lightning II from the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, takes off from RAF Lakenheath. Picture: US Air Force/Senior Airman Malcolm Mayfield

Lt Col Vause said the base is learning lessons from close links to RAF Marham which is undergoing a £500m construction project to ready itself for the arrival of the F-35B.

US Air Force in East Anglia

The arrival of the state-of-the-art F-35 looks to have secured the future of RAF Lakenheath as a US Air Force Base.

Nearby RAF Mildenhall, home to the 100th Air Refuelling Wing, is earmarked to close in 2024.

MORE - RAF Mildenhall closure delayed until 2024

The base is one of the largest single employers in Forest Heath and will see 3,200 airmen leave the area.

The 56th and 57th Rescue Squadrons, based at RAF Lakenheath are currently being relocated to Aviano Air Base in Italy, because of its more strategic and economically suited location.

Nearly 350 personnel, five HH-60G Pave Hawks and Guardian Angel Weapons Systems, will be relocated.

The USAFE (United States Air Forces in Europe) Economic Impact Analysis 2012, published in April 2013, detailed RAF Lakenheath pumps £365m into the region’s economy every year, while RAF Mildenhall injects £220m.

US service personnel have formed close links with the local communities.

MORE - Community tells of special relationship with RAF Mildenhall and make their case to keep it open after closure date

Lt Col William Vause said: “I know from a US service member that we have great support from the local community and we are just very appreciative that we have the opportunity to one, live in England and two, operate out of RAF Lakenheath.”

The F-35A Lightning II

It is the world’s most advanced multi-role fighter.

Its advanced stealth allows pilots to go into areas without being detected by radars which can detect older fighters.

Missions traditionally performed by specialized aircraft — air-to-air combat, air-to-ground strikes, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — can now be executed by a squadron of F-35s.

Each jet costs nearly £100m.

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